Dramatising ideas

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting by the fireplace at 50 Church Road trying to explain to our Chinese guests – 13 students and two teachers from Chuansha School in Shanghai – the peculiarities of the English tradition of Afternoon Tea.  This is relatively straightforward, however, compared to my hamfisted attempts to describe the ups and downs of Admiral Nelson’s popularity before he secured it by dying at Trafalgar.  It’s a bit of a truism to say that things are as interesting as they are complicated once you start to delve into them, but there is nothing quite like trying to describe something central to your culture to people from a very different one and in comprehensible language to make you realise the limitations of language.

So, still wishing that I hadn’t got so embroiled in different pronunciations of “scone” or mentioned Lady Hamilton, I find myself later standing by the lake (on the Theatre side) watching the first of the five short devised shows that are part of the 6.2 Theatre Studies practical exam.  As this first piece involves two girls emerging from the lake, the cast have been hoping for the good weather to continue; alas, it’s chilly – well, alas from a comfort/ Health and Safety point of view, but a dankish twilight beefs up the Gothic in my view – breath is steamy and the piece’s conclusion (too grisly to recount) is helped by what the Scots call the dreich ambiance.

Now the audience is back in the Theatre: the relative warmth is reassuring, but the next four pieces will be in the best tradition of Bedales student-devised work: inventive, thought-provoking, rich in ideas, sometimes visceral and usually bold in execution.  Language plays its part, but is subsidiary to physical theatre.

The strongest thread running through these arresting pieces is of the complexity and pitfalls of human relationships, with the #MeToo movement and the objectification of women at its core.  Having grown accustomed to a school environment where students can use devised theatre to explore their feelings so fully, it is difficult to imagine a school where such intelligent, demanding and exploratory work does not happen.

China reflections – returning from Beijing

Vapid thoughts and plane journeys sometimes go hand in hand – that copy of the Daily Mail you are presented with and the strange magnetism of SvenGöran Eriksson’s deadpan prose style (e.g., following the account of his being cheated out of £10m, “I was a little melancholy”,  but I find myself drawn back to my copy of China Daily, which, although clearly having its own clear agenda, is a better spur to thought. Yes, there is the obligatory optimism – on the front page only:

NEW WARNING ON OVERCAPACITY

MINERS DIGGING DEEP FOR A NEW GLOBAL STRATEGY

LUXURY SHOPPERS GET MORE SOPHISTICATED

But it is inside that the more interesting stories lie: an account of a deal reached between a Scottish drilling company and China (Alex Salmond is in China too); Li Jing’ang, a garbage collector in Beijing who has “become an online celebrity thanks to a video which shows him talking to foreigners in fluent English and eagerly teaching pedestrians oral English”; and, above all, a story about author Tan Kai’s latest book, Hello, I’m a Panda, which uses first person narration to illustrate the life of a panda, using the point of view of a baby panda to emphasize a mother panda’s love, focusing on “mom’s melancholy eyes” and the love that “brought forth 8 million years of pandas’ family history”. You will have to wait/skip to the end of this blog to find out some other interesting facts about pandas, but in the meantime, here are some non-panda random thoughts about the dominant impressions of the 6 days of the British Council inspired GREAT Britain Education Mission.

  • A huge appetite for educational advancement and for collaboration in order to achieve this: most strongly evident in the two schools we visited this manifests itself as a desire for Chinese teachers to go out – to the UK for example – and become more skilled in enabling Chinese students to become more creative and independent in their thinking and learning.
  • Central government worry about too many students who leave China for university education not returning.
  • The tension between the liberal Western concept of the purpose of education, which puts individual self-fulfillment as the purpose of education and the Chinese central drive which is to educate its citizens so that they can be good citizens, enabling their country to be harmonious and prosperous.
  • The way in which the most forward-looking Chinese schools are using their international sections as  a way of fostering a culture within each school that will act as a change agent, bringing in Western teachers and spreading good teaching practice that will create those more creative and independent-thinking students.
  • The speed of uptake and receptiveness of the students I taught to quite a demanding linguistic exercise  – choosing between different potential words in an Edward Thomas poem.
  • The central conundrum underpinning all of this: how can you liberate students’ thoughts in one area of their existence – i.e, the academic/intellectual sphere – whilst their political freedoms are so circumscribed? This struck me most forcibly when I visited the main bookshop on Wangfujing Street: Wangfujing Bookstore. As you walk in to the shop your immediate experience is of being surrounded by stacks of biographies and writings of the great men of the Communist Party – poles apart from the sense of plurality of views, topics and authors that greet you on entering a Western bookshop.

Finally those panda facts:

  • Panda cubs – sometimes only 52 grams – can only be fed with drops of milk from a needsl (needle?).
  • It is only in the last month of a panda’s 120-170 day pregnancy that the ovum is embedded.
  • Pandas are pigeon-toed in both of their two pairs of limbs.
  • A panda called Ming was notable in the London Blitz for remaining very calm whilst other animals were frightened, showing high morale in the anti-fascism war.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Creativity in China

On a British Council-sponsored visit to China, representing UK boarding and, via that, Bedales; so as I tap this it is early morning and I am sitting with my four headteacher colleagues  in the mother of all traffic jams in Dalian, up north on the coast (known in colonial times as Port Arthur) and, like most Chinese cities, a place of huge growth. Now it stands at about 6 million.  Most of our work us in and around Beijing but this is our excursion north to take our message to this increasingly affluent city.

Having spent some of my sabbatical in China in 2009, when Moony and I visited our partner school in Shanghai (Chuanshua) and then travelled more broadly, it is intriguing to see how things have shot on in the interim, not least in approaches to education. Yesterday we spent much of the day at Beijing No 80 High School. Situated in the Chaoyang district of Beijing and selected in 2010 as “an experimental school for the cultivation of innovative talents in Beijing”, it says much about the ambition of Chinese education. Using its international section as a way of making the school look outwards, it is throwing huge resources at teacher training and student exchanges. For example 300 teachers spent a month training in England this summer. The most intriguing part if the three hour conference we had there with local educators yesterday was the contribution of the boss of the Education Committee of the Chaoyang  district, which (to give you a sense of the scale) has 5 million people in it.  What became very clear is that the government is seeking to meet the growing appetite amongst the Chinese middle classes for a better global perspective through getting more of the educational world to come to it.  Also clear is the way in which schools like No 80 are taking seriously the need to make students think for themselves: expressions like lifelong learning and creative thinking abound.

All this is part of the Chinese “2020 plan”, set out in 2010, to prepare their students to compete better internationally  and for more to have the option of going to top foreign universities.  In recognition of the important work No 80 is doing, not only did they have us to visit, but also Premier Hu Jintao visited last year.

Even more enjoyable than the three hour conference or even the bewitching array of lunchtime dishes, was teaching an Edward Thomas poem (The Manor Farm) to a very orderly group of sixth formers.  The 35 students were very patient and receptive. We concluded with a shot of the memorial inscription about Thomas (“killed Arras…1917”) from the Poet’s Stone, which elicited a general, plaintive sigh – an endearing and memorable final moment.

Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Chinese tea and Oxford reception

Summer brings with it even more times when you have pleasant chats with very different groups of people over a cup of tea or even a glass of Prosecco. Friday evening saw MIchael Truss, Clare Jarmy, Sarah Oakley, Philip Parsons and I at the Old Parsonage in Oxford meeting up over drinks with about 20 present and recently past OB Oxonians; which was both fun and informative, as far as building up a full picture in order better to guide current students on college and course choice. Intriguing too for me to discover that I have shared a glass (non-alcoholic in several cases of course) with both of my head boys from 2010/11 on their 20th birthdays – Omer Sami in Los Angeles on Easter Monday and Frank Macpherson in Oxford last Friday.

This afternoon it is a traditional cup of tea (plus scones etc)  at 50 Church Road with our 12 student guests and two teachers from our Chinese partner school, Chuansha in Shanghai. I visited there four years ago, which was also when the last student delegation came here; they hosted our school visit to China in February. At last night’s assembly, my welcome to them was followed by two traditional Chinese pieces played by our visitors – Joy, Zhang Zhixiao, playing her flute and Rita, Ding Yixin, singing. The assembly then continued with Shirley, Jin Huijing, one of the Chinese teachers describing some of the differences between Chuansha and Bedales – with the typical class size (of 42) perhaps the most salient statistic. The courage of our visitors in performing here in front of the school – and on only their second day – won many plaudits and warm applause. It was great to see them sitting chatting outside with our students in the evening sun after assembly. Tonight, a very different business as we have our annual reception and presentation to the local Steep community. The purpose of this is to keep people abreast of developments – both educational and building – and to enlist their support and understanding with future developments, such as the new Art & Design centre.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music school. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.